To his fellow Minnesota natives, he’s a high school state hockey tournament poster child. To Badger fans, he’s a standout freshman and the scorer that helped send a top-ranked archrival home without a win last weekend. But inside the locker room, he’s Billy B.
“My real name is William. So they found that out…” William Grant Besse said with a laugh, hiding his embarrassment with a smile.
To his teammates, Besse is a fast, smart player who came into the Wisconsin men’s hockey program a true freshman and a hyped recruit. Unsure of what to expect from the next Minnesota high school hockey protégé, the Badger players soon got to know what they describe as a cool, humble, down to earth guy. And when Besse was selected by the Anaheim Ducks in the fifth round of the NHL draft in June, he became Billy B. to the others in cardinal red and white.
“None of us knew until he got drafted and we were like, ‘is that Besse?’” senior center Mark Zengerle, better known to his team as Zengs, said. So the nicknames Willy, Bill and Billy B. began.
Since his first series as a Badger back in October when he scored a game-winning goal at home give UW a series sweep over Northern Michigan, Besse has made a name for himself among fans as the guy who knows how to get it done at home, having recorded all 12 of his points this season on the Kohl Center ice sheet.
Last weekend against then-No. 1 Minnesota, Besse skated in UW’s top line alongside Zengerle and sophomore left winger Nic Kerdiles. Head coach Mike Eaves said during the series that he wanted to give Besse the opportunity while senior winger Tyler Barnes remained out of the lineup with a shoulder injury.
That opportunity paid off as Besse scored the first goal for Wisconsin in game two of to the series last Friday night and assisted on Kerdiles’ game-winner to give UW a series sweep in the border battle.
“It was a peak of things we hope can be there on a regular basis,” Eaves said. “He has the confidence to play with anybody right now and we need him to continue on the path that he showed us this past weekend.”
Although pleased with his performance, Besse sees consistency as the biggest challenge for himself moving forward.
Hoping to get in a groove with the upcoming series on the road against Ohio State, both Besse and Eaves know he possesses the potential after the big weekend performance and confidence running high.
“He is on the right path, there’s no magic trail…it’s going to take a little bit of time but he’s on the right path,” Eaves said.
Consistency may be what Besse is after, but the 5-foot-10, 178-pound winger has shown he can step up to the plate even as a freshman.
“Grant is the type of player that you can throw him anywhere. He’s very smart, very skilled and very fast,” Zengerle said. “It takes some of those guys, true freshmen, a little time to adjust [to college hockey] but I think just because of his hockey sense and his speed he was able to adjust a little quicker.”
“That was one of the biggest goals of the year and that’s just the type of player he is,” Zengerle added about Besse’s goal against Minnesota.
Despite being a naturally skilled player, Besse was not the stereotypical Minnesota kid raised in a hockey-crazed family. In fact, he was the first in his family to lace up the skates and pick up a stick. A Plymouth, Minn. native, Besse originally wanted to be a goaltender after seeing gear that “looked pretty sweet” in the basement of a friend’s house at a young age.
“I originally wanted to be a goalie but decided I wasn’t very good, so I tried to be a skater and just have ever since,” Besse said.
Skating came more naturally for Besse, who made his way onto the varsity team as a freshman at Benilde-St. Margaret High School. Not long after his first high school start, Besse came to UW on an unofficial visit and knew then that Wisconsin was where he wanted to go.
“Seeing the Kohl Center, compared to what I had played in for high school, was just two drastic, different things,” Besse said. “There were just so many things that caught my eye that made me want to come here.”
While surfacing in big moments is a trait UW has learned about Besse, it is a skill he had in his back pocket even before taking to the ice in Wisconsin. As a junior in high school, Besse led his team to a high school hockey state championship, scoring all five goals in his team’s 5-1 victory and setting a tournament record. Of the five goals he scored back on March 10, 2012 in front of 17,607 screaming fans, three of them were short-handed.
“We kind of did a double take. Like, he did what?” Eaves said, recalling hearing about his recruit’s performance. “So that’s a pretty unique situation and one he will look on when he is older.”
But for Besse, it wasn’t so much the game that meant the world to him, but rather its significance to his team, the community and one particular screaming onlooker in the stands.
On Dec. 30 of that season, Besse’s teammate, sophomore Jack Jablonski, suffered a spinal cord injury during a JV game that left him paralyzed from the chest down. The entire community rallied around the kid they all referred to as “Jabs” and his family, Besse and Jabs’ teammates wanted to bring home a championship in his honor. To accomplish such a feat meant so much more than the five goals.
“Being able to rally back and end up winning the state tournament and seeing the look on his face while we were in the locker room,” Besse said. “That moment when we were in the locker room that we accomplished our goal from the beginning of the season despite everything that had happened—that was probably the best moment.”
Besse said he still talks with Jablonski on a regular basis and has remained close with his high school coach and the hockey community since coming to UW. Besse is now both an experienced player of hockey and of life, bringing an outlook to UW that many young, aspiring athletes don’t have.
“There is more to life than just hockey. At that point in my life, that is all I really cared about to be honest,” he said. “But seeing that injury and what happened to him and seeing everything you take for granted on a daily basis being taken away from someone who now can’t do simple day-to-day tasks. It just makes me so appreciative for what I have.”